Saying that the revitalization of dilapidated Edgewood Plaza is long overdue, Palo Alto's planning commission gave plans to redevelop the historic 1950s shopping center a push Wednesday night while also deliberating over the public benefits the developer should be required to provide.
Sand Hill Property Co. is proposing to build 10 two-story homes and renovating the three historic buildings on the property, which lies along Embarcadero Road and is bordered by West Bayshore Road, Channing Avenue and St. Francis Drive. The plaza was built in the 1950s by developer Joseph Eichler and was his only retail center.
The Planning and Transportation Commission voted unanimously to initiate a zone change that would clear the way for further reviews and potential approval. The city's historic-resources and architectural-review boards can now consider the plan.
Edgewood Plaza fell into disrepair and became all but deserted after Albertson's supermarket closed nearly a decade ago. After years of wrangling over historic preservation and the number of homes Sand Hill planned to build, including a 2009 lawsuit filed by a group of residents, Sand Hill and residents arrived at an agreement that includes bringing back a grocery store.
Commissioner Greg Tanaka said he supported the "urgent revitalization of the center. It's been too long and too late," he said.
But he also expressed concerns about the shopping center's viability. He had previously asked for, and still had not received, any information about why the plaza had failed in the past, he said.
"Why has this site, near a busy off ramp, near a busy freeway, in an affluent area, failed? I want an understanding," he said. He doesn't want the council to be revisiting the topic in another 50 years if the retail center fails again, he added.
Edgewood's limited visibility in part is due to Eichler's design, which placed his office and the Shell station adjacent to Embarcadero, developer John Tze said after the meeting. In addition, a screen of trees blocks visibility, he said.
Much of the nearly four-hour discussion revolved around public benefits, which are required in exchange for a planned-community (PC) zone. The public benefits accepted by the city for other dense mixed-use projects in Palo Alto have been of dubious value, residents pointed out and commissioners agreed.
Several residents, including Barron Park's Bob Moss, said the city has not been diligent in protecting so-called public-benefit spaces from encroachment by business interests in the past.
Public plazas such as the courtyard adjacent to Café Riace and a plaza at 800 High Street have been largely used by restaurants for outside dining, residents said.
Sand Hill has proposed a 12,099 sq. ft. pocket park at the corner of Channing Avenue and St. Francis Drive that includes a grassy area, fountain, benches, walkways and seating in a paved plaza area.
But Commissioner Susan Fineberg expressed concern about the true intent of the park, since drawings showed that half the area would be covered with pavers and patio seating.
"It reads like tables and chairs" for businesses, she said. "I'm questioning the erosion of true public use. It should be preserved as true open space, not infringed on as functional, for-profit spaces. It's not going to fly as a public benefit if it's public sidewalks and private seating," she said.
Curtis Williams, the city's planning director, agreed that past vagueness led to plazas being taken over for private use. The park boundaries need to be well-defined so that the dividing line between public and private space won't be confused, he said.
But developer John Tze said more seating and less grass was proposed because neighbors have said they don't want a park to be for children's use.
Commissioner Eduardo Martinez wondered, however, if the city should be boxed into a park proposal.
"What if we didn't accept it as a park?" he said. He suggested the area could be used as open space or perhaps the city could accept a $500,000 in-lieu-of fee, a requirement of the state Quimby Act.
Tanaka suggested designating some housing for seniors could be a public benefit.
Commissioner Lee Lippert initially brought up the senior-housing issue in another context: arranging for the Palo Alto shuttle to stop at Edgewood.
Palo Alto has an aging population that may not be able to get to the shopping center otherwise, he said.
"It creates connectivity and provides ample transportation ... and it eliminates a significant amount of parking," he said.
Tze said bus service would be a good thing if a stop could be placed near the Shell gas station or in a location where it would not impact residents.
Commissioners said another potential public benefit could include upping below-market-rate housing from 1.5 units to two.
Tze said he is optimistic about the plaza's future. North Carolina-based The Fresh Market has continued to express interest in establishing a market, but he is waiting to hear about their decision, he said.
The plaza might have outlived its relevance for a time, leading to its decline, but fortunes are again favoring the neighborhood shopping center, he said.
"Lifestyles change. A couple of years ago, no grocery store wanted to be less than 50,000 square feet," he said.